Troubled by the sharp increase in suicides among younger veterans since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the American Legion — the nation’s largest veterans’ service organization — recently published a study of the reasons why these young people are killing themselves.
Statistics show that since 2001, 124 of every 100,000 male veterans ages 18-24 who served in Iraq or Afghanistan committed suicide. At the same time, 11 out of 100,000 female veterans ages 18-29 took their own lives. Both demographics far outpace the civilian population.
While acknowledging that there is no simple answer that explains the tragic phenomenon, the Legion study nonetheless focused upon four specific causes:
* Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can trigger an increase in substance abuse, strain personal relationships, and adversely affect brain function.
* Traumatic brain injury (TBI). The most common injury of the present war, it affects memory, concentration and other brain functions. Additionally, TBI is known to trigger irritability and depression.
* The loss of a sense of purpose. When veterans leave active duty, they often no longer have the same reason or ability to connect to something greater than themselves. “A significant relationship exists between an individual’s sense of purpose in life and his or her psychological well-being and levels of self-efficacy,” the Legion report stated.
* The loss of a sense of belonging. Another factor for former service members is lack of connection many experience with the modern urban industrialized society characteristic of the civilian world. “Average
Americans may view veterans as ‘damaged heroes’ often portrayed in the media as objects in need of charity and pity rather than potential leaders, co-workers, peers and friends,” the report stated. These stereotypes can adversely affect how veterans are re-assimilated into society.
The Legion report recognized the “great strides” made by the Department of Veterans Affairs in reducing suicides of former service members — but say the effort has not stopped the average of 20 veterans suicides each day, according to an analysis of statistics conducted last month. The agency needs to improve its hiring practices, to attract and retain more professionals, the Legion stated. Also, more work is needed in studying and prescribing psychotropic drugs. While these medications — which include Xanax, Valium and Klonopin — have been proven to be effective treatments, the Legion study noted that they also could have adverse side effects that could lead to suicide.
The study also noted that more than 62 percent of all service members who were separated because of misconduct between 2011 and 2015 also had either TBI or PTSD. More should be done to help these persons, the Legion believes.